Public Power Magazine

Confined spaces harbor hidden challenges, hazards


From the May 2013 issue (Vol. 71, No. 3) of Public Power

Originally published April 3, 2013

By William Atkinson
April 3, 2013

Working in confined spaces requires its own set of safety considerations and poses challenges for virtually all workers. While new workers may be unfamiliar with all the hazards associated with confined spaces, veterans of the trade risk complacency that can lead to tragedies. It is incumbent on utilities to make sure all workers know and adhere to all of the requirements and every time they work in confined spaces.

"When I worked on the investor-owned side, we had underground crews and overhead crews," said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services for the American Public Power Association. "The overhead crews went around in bucket trucks. The underground crews went around in what we called 'bread trucks.'"

Underground crews were trained in cable splicing, dealing with conduits and vaults, taking air measurements, and setting up fans. "I knew some guys who were underground cable splicers for 40 years and then retired," Hyland said. "That's all they did. They never climbed a pole in their life."

Large utilities, Hyland said, delegating duties is easier with a larger staff. But at many public power utilities, the lineworkers do it all— overhead and underground. Problems can arise when workers who spend most of their time climbing poles occasionally have to do some underground work. "Since they don't specialize in it, they aren't experts, and they often don't realize all of the things that can happen and that need to be done," Hyland said.

Experienced climbers are finding themselves working underground more and more. Rural utility lines may all be located overhead, but Hyland said many utilities are moving toward buried lines. “As we move more and more from overhead to underground, we are seeing more cities putting in more confined spaces." Even small towns that are involved in revitalization consider the switch, he said.

APPA members practice pole-top and bucket truck rescue on a regular basis: it is even an event at the Public Power Lineworkers Rodeo. "Now, more and more members are telling us that they are doing a lot more work underground than above-ground, so interest in confined space rescue is becoming more important to them." 

APPA has offered an overhead and underground utility education course for over 20 years. Larry Koshire, general manager of Rochester Public Utilities in Minnesota and Mark Swan, formerly of Colorado Springs Utilities, teach the course. The class remains popular, Hyland said. "We have never not had enough people to have the class." 

Defining ‘confined space’

There is a difference between "enclosed space," "confined space," and excavation work. For example, a utility worker excavating underground lines is not necessarily working in a confined space or an enclosed space, said Hyland. 

"In the APPA Safety Manual, we have a definition of a confined space, which is different from the enclosed space definition," said Hyland. A confined space typically contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere, whereas an enclosed space typically does not, he said. "In other words, all confined spaces are enclosed spaces, but not all enclosed spaces are confined spaces. The first thing that safety people need to do is decide whether it a confined space or just an enclosed space."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration weighs in as well with similar definitions. A confined space may be an underground vault, a tank, storage bins, manholes, pits, silos, process vessels or pipelines. Additionally, OSHA uses the term “permit-required confined space” to describe one that is or could be hazardous.

The challenges of confined spaces are not always obvious.

"When a guy goes down into a vault, he doesn't know what's in there," said Hyland. It is often necessary to have a worker remain outside to monitor the equipment of the worker or workers inside the space. "If something happens, such as a flash, or the fans fail and cause an asphyxiation, the person up-top can't grab a 220-pound lineman and carry him back up, no matter how strong he is," said Hyland.

To share safe practices for confined spaces with its members, APPA produced a video on confined space rescue. "Mike Willetts was the champion of that," said Hyland. Willetts is the director of job safety and training for Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, immediate past chair of APPA's E&O Section. He chaired APPA's Safety Manual Review Task Force, and is a former chair of the APPA Safety Committee. "As more and more underground is done in Minnesota, Mike Willetts has done a nice job of leading this," Hyland said.

For Willetts, safety in confined spaces is personal. When he was a teenager, he witnessed an accident in confined space that resulted in multiple fatalities.

"A worker was down a manhole and was overcome," said Willetts. "His buddies went down to get him, and they were overcome, too. This is one of the things that pushed me toward the safety world."

Emergency responders, as well as workers, risk danger or death in a hazardous confined space without proper training. "It is easy to take confined space safety for granted," said Willetts. "It is important to follow procedures the same way each and every time."

One of the biggest misconceptions is that a confined space is safe, when it may not be. According to Willetts, each utility should identify the hazards that it can have with its confined spaces. "Then you need a written program, complete with detailed procedures, such as identifying and testing the air quality of each location, and developing proper ventilation practices." Willetts is an advocate of arranging for ventilation in every confined space, regardless of what kind of conditions exist. 

The program should also include a pre-determined rescue plan, with the appropriate safety harnesses and equipment, and make sure people are prepared to use these if necessary. "In addition, always conduct job briefings before each job," Willetts said. "Ideally, those briefings should be written."

While some safety problems in confined spaces result from inexperienced workers who have not been adequately trained, safety problems can also occur with veteran workers, who become complacent, said Kansas Municipal Utilities’ Rick Aguilar.

"The more you do something, regardless of how hazardous it is, if nothing happens, you can become complacent," he said.

He recalled talking with a worker from another utility recently who was in a confined space that turned out to be hazardous. One worker survived, but the other did not. "People need to remember that all of the rules, regulations, processes and steps need to be followed," said Aguilar. "They need to remember that a lot of these were written in blood."

According to Aguilar, there is an innate point of pride among utility workers to do whatever it takes to keep the lights on. "Even if you have entered a confined space 100 times, if you don't go through every step of the process that has been put in place to ensure safety, that could be the last time you enter a confined space," he said. Productivity sometimes becomes more important than safety. "However, it is my belief that, if you focus on safety first, everything else takes care of itself.”

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